The 32-year-old Hubble Space Telescope isn’t likely to fall out of the sky any time soon, but the high-tech device is slowly losing altitude because of normal atmospheric drag. And, by some time in the mid- to late 2030s, it could drop so much that it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere.
But—just maybe—someone or something could help give it a boost back up to its initial altitude of 373 miles. That’s an idea that NASA and Elon Musk’s SpaceX are exploring through a joint study they launched last week.
For now, the space agency and the private company are simply considering whether a partnership to raise Hubble to a more stable orbit makes sense. As part of the six-month investigation, scientists will examine whether SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft could help lift Hubble’s orbit, potentially docking with the telescope, in an attempt to prolong its life. They’ll also study whether it makes sense to send a crew aboard Dragon, which can hold seven people, to help service the aging observatory.
The James Webb Space Telescope—launched in December by NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency—is larger and more powerful than Hubble. But the original space telescope is still capturing the universe in high detail, providing astronomers with valuable insights. So naturally, NASA wants to extend its life.
“It’s wholly appropriate for us to look at this because of the tremendous value this research asset has for us, as well as others,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, at a press conference last week, as reported by Gizmodo’s Passant Rabie. “We’re looking at crazy ideas all the time... that’s what we’re supposed to do.”
The study will not cost the government any money, per a statement from NASA. And, the space agency reiterated, there are no plans to “conduct or fund a servicing mission or complete this opportunity; the study is designed to help the agency understand the commercial possibilities.” NASA also pointed out that the study is not exclusive, meaning that other private companies can also propose similar ideas using their own spacecraft or rockets.
Named for astronomer Edwin Hubble, the large telescope was launched on April 24, 1990, with help from the space shuttle Discovery. In the more than 30 years since, Hubble has made 1.5 million observations of planets, galaxies, distant stars and many other celestial bodies, per NASA. Since it orbits above the Earth’s atmosphere, Hubble’s view is largely free from distortions such as light pollution and rain clouds.
Astronauts have made five separate trips to the telescope to replace and update its parts, make repairs and boost it to higher altitudes. The space shuttle Atlantis paid the most recent visit to the telescope in 2009, when it boosted Hubble to an altitude of 350 miles. Since then, the space-based observatory has dropped about 20 miles.
In 2011, however, NASA shuttered its space shuttle program. Instead of ferrying crews and supplies itself, the space agency has turned to private companies like SpaceX to carry out those tasks. SpaceX has been ferrying cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) since 2012; in 2020, the company also began transporting crew members to the ISS. Boeing, meanwhile, also recently completed its first successful cargo delivery mission to the ISS.
It makes sense, then, that NASA might also consider collaborating with private companies to address Hubble’s needs, too.
“What we want to do is expand the boundaries of current technology,” Jessica Jensen, SpaceX’s vice president of customer operations and integration, says to the New York Times’ Kenneth Chang. “We want to show how we use commercial partnerships as well as the public-private partnerships to creatively solve challenging and complex problem missions such as servicing Hubble.”
Any future private mission to Hubble may be part of Polaris, a crewed spaceflight program SpaceX is operating on behalf of billionaire Jared Isaacman.
Isaacman, who is CEO of the payments platform Shift4, hired SpaceX to take himself and three guests on a three-day trip around the Earth last September. Isaacman has since announced plans for as many as three more private space flights with SpaceX under his proposed Polaris program. A trip to Hubble could be a good fit for one of the Polaris missions, Isaacman said.
“If the study takes us down a path where a mission is possible, this would certainly fit within the parameters we established for the Polaris program,” Isaacman said at the press conference, per Gizmodo.